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The Black Horn

The Story of Classical French Hornist Robert Lee Watt

by Robert Lee Watt

Hardcover, 265 pages, Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc, List Price: $75 |


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The Story of Classical French Hornist Robert Lee Watt
Robert Lee Watt

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NPR Summary

Robert Lee Watt tells the story of his musicianship, from first picking up his instrument to becoming the first black French horn player hired by a major symphony in the United States. The book takes a look at not only the world of music and Watt's progression as a musician, but the racial climate of America.

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Robert Lee Watt was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for more than three decades. Courtesy of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers hide caption

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'The Black Horn': Blowing Past Classical Music's Color Barriers

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Black Horn

I played the French horn every day for hours, just producing long tones, getting used to the instrument, and enjoying the lovely tone. When I tried to play bugle calls on the real French horn, I noticed it had a better response, a more liquid and softer feel to it. Over the weekend, I continued to explore several lessons in the French horn book. In addition to the lessons, I worked up a fancy bugle call with lots of fast, loud notes to play for the band director because I knew he didn't believe I could play the French horn with my thick lips. When Monday came, I was extremely anxious to get to sixth period for my first French horn lesson. That particular morning, I ran into the band director as I entered the building. He saw me, did a double take, and said hello. I was soaking wet from the rain, the horn case was wet, and I guess I looked a sight after walking all the way from the West Side in the rain. He looked at me and asked, "You walked all the way from the West Side in this weather with that horn, son?" I said, "Yes, I did, sir." I made an apology for the horn and nervously tried to wipe the water off the old case with my hand. I told him that I would wipe it off better as soon as I got a paper towel. "I could put some wax on the case to keep it better — " He just looked at me and shook his head, walking away mumbling, "If I could get half the kids in the band to take their horns home I might have ... " I yelled after him, saying I'd see him sixth period. He just waved his hand, OK. ...

The next thing I knew, I was in the Berkshire Mountains at Red Fox Music Camp assembling prefabricated practice rooms and painting flower boxes. The camp was like something out of a New England novel: acres of rolling hills, an old New England barn, trees, a stream, and of course, lots of meadows and dense woods. In the distance, the higher Berkshire Mountains created a stunning visual backdrop. When the music camp started, word got around quickly that I was going to play a solo with the Boston Pops. It was my ID tag for the summer, but I can't remember a happier time in my life. I had a great musical opportunity to improve my playing over the summer, I had a solo engagement with the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler, and I had a great teacher who made all of it possible. I was extremely blessed. Sometimes I was so full of excitement that I had to just sit for a while and be quiet. I found a beautiful spot far out in the woods where I went to meditate. In that place, I could reflect on all the things that had happened in my short musical life. It all seemed so unbelievable at times. All because one very cute black girl happened to smile at me in eighth grade and in that magical moment, that single stroke of human tenderness, jump-started my entire life. I had often wondered how her college life was going, but I didn't hear from her until late that summer. She had done very well her first year in college and I heard she was majoring in sociology. I missed her and often thought about her during my first year at conservatory. As my mind slowly drifted from thoughts of Leslie, I couldn't help wondering what the other campers would be like. Would the orchestra be good? Would the conductor be good? Would he "mess with me" because I was black? Would the horn section be good? So many questions flashed through my mind as I went about my work-scholarship duties ...

Several weeks later, I happily left the city of my conservatory years and boarded a one-way flight to Los Angeles. The flight didn't seem so long the second time. I couldn't help but feel somehow vindicated and content that I had made it through a lot of crazy drama during my school years in Boston. I had finally earned something substantial in my life, in spite of all the naysayers back at the conservatory, and most of all, in spite of my father's doubts. I was truly closing a chapter of my life. It was a sweet victory and yet somehow sad, leaving some of my best friends behind. I don't ever remember feeling so alone in my entire life. The idea of being on an airplane leaving a life behind that I knew for one of newness and uncertainty was daunting. Perhaps that was the sweet pain of growth. In the long run and in a very short while, things in my life would be better than ever; I wondered if my entire life would be that way if I kept striving. When the aircraft touched down, a feeling of great excitement rushed through my young body. I was back in the city that had so impressed me just a few months earlier. I had a job that would enable me, through the glory of music, to fully experience the amazing city of Los Angeles. I briefly mused about all the great things that would happen: With all the great weather, I would enjoy all the beautiful women, get in really great physical shape by running for miles on the beach enjoying the Pacific Ocean, play film scores in the studios of Los Angeles — it was all looking fantastically surreal.

From The Black Horn: The Story Of Classical French Hornist Robert Lee Watt by Robert Lee Watt. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.